The Irony of Stereotypes: Toward an Anthropology of Ethnicity

Essay Abstract

"Greek" is a ubiquitous stereotype in the discourse of Greek Americans. They know "Greek" reflects on themselves, though they are sometimes puzzled by the "Greek" component of their identities. Constructing these identities is problematic for them principally because there is no single "Greek" identity. "Greek" is refracted by various images and tropes, or figures of speech, each operating in different structural settings. My argumenthere is that this simple observation about tropes in American talk about ethnicity opens up a new way to think about ethnicity in the United States. My aimis to pose the problem of ethnicity at home in radically cultural terms.

My examination of the operations of one trope-irony-on ethnic stereotypes in Greek American talk leads me to suggest that an anthropology of ethnicity must take note of irony and, more, may use it to make a new beginning in the analysis of systems of meaning. Ethnicity belongs to that assortment of cultural operators (Boon 1973) with which anthropology has made distinctive contributions among the social sciences and humanities to understanding social life: the rendering of complex cultural processes as cultural (rather than psychological or economic). This anthropological collection houses les pensees sauvage of trick- sters (Beidelman 1980), totemism (Lévi-Strauss 1963, 1966), animal categories and verbal abuse (Leach 1964), food (Douglas 1975; Feeley-Harik 1981), rites of affliction (Turner 1968), and more. However, since they are not exotic, each is a worker that engages the fundamental and fundamentally social tasks of fitting the categorical around the situational. All are transformers in cultures-hence they are moral, as emphasized by social anthropologists-and rendering their powers makes the theoretical enterprise of anthropology worthwhile. (Chock, 347)

About the Author

Phyllis Pease Chock is a retired Professor Emerita at the Catholic University of America and is a cultural anthropologist who specializes in American ethnicity and discourses of cultural identity, "ethnicity," and gender, particularly about "citizenship."  Her work has focused especially on Greek-Americans and the symbols and meanings in which they explore their identities as "Greek" and as "American" and the play of gender in discourses about such identities.Recently she has published studies of Congressional testimony and other official discourses on what it means to be American.   Among her publications are: 

--"The Constrained Use of Irony in U.S. Congressional Testimony" (2001).

--" 'A Very Bright Line': Birth, Nature, and Reason in U.S. Congressional Hearings on Birthright Citizenship" (1999).

-- "Porous Borders: Discourses of Difference in Congressional Hearings on Immigration" (1997).

--" 'No New Women': Gender, 'Alien,' and 'Citizen' in Congressional Debate on Immigration Reform" (1996). 

--"'Illegal Aliens' and 'Opportunity': Myth-making in Congressional Testimony" (1991).

--"The Self-Made Woman: The Success Story and Gender in Greek-American Family Histories" (1995).

--"Ambiguity in Policy Discourse: Congressional Talk about Immigration" (1995)

--"Culturalism: Pluralism, Culture, and Race in The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups" (1995).

--"'Your Friend, the Illegal': Definition and Paradox in Newspaper Accounts of Immigration Reform," Co-authored with Susan B. Coutin (1995).

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